Amber India is coming to Los Altos and picked a storied location for its new restaurant – the huge eatery at 4926 El Camino Real already has a place in local history books.
Passersby can be forgiven for not noticing the sprawling three-story structure tucked away among office buildings a few blocks south of San Antonio Road. But long before housing a series of kebab restaurants, before its stint as an Italian bistro, the building saw music legend being made.
When Larry Hancock created Chuck’s Cellar in the late 1960s, it drew headliners ranging from the Kingston Trio to John Stewart, who recorded part of an album there. Grainy footage of one folk performance still lives on, courtesy of YouTube.
Vijay Bist, Amber India’s founder, aims to recapture some hint of ’60s nostalgia in the space, paired with a north Indian-style menu he’s made famous on the Peninsula. Over the past 20 years, Amber India has worked its way onto best-of lists from its Mountain View location farther south on El Camino Real, and recently opened new outposts in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Jose.
Bist said the new Los Altos Amber would have an old-Hollywood feel, with tapas-style Indian and Californian food in the downstairs lounge, and Amber’s traditional offerings (famous for: butter chicken) in the main dining room upstairs, which includes a large outdoor patio space. The cooking staff from the original Amber will move to the new location, he said, and add new seasonal, healthful additions to the classic menu.
Bist said Amber is going through the permitting process with Los Altos to allow renovations inside the restaurant, and they’ve signed a 20-year lease on the space. The building also has private rooms for corporate or special events that nearly double the capacity.
The building’s current owners, the Mehranfar family, operated two kebab/grill restaurants in the space over the past decades, starting with Healthy Choice Kabob House in 1997, followed by Pineapple Grill and Bar in 2012. They’re also the proprietors behind the Rose International Market in Mountain View.
Before the kebab era, the Sidella family opened the Italian restaurant Piccolo Mondo in 1986, as the Cellar first changed hands.
The steak and lobster joint had built a niche within the folk music world and a place in local rock history. In 1971, Linda Ronstadt assembled a backup band to play a gig at the Cellar and on her producer’s recommendation, tapped a handful of musicians to play together for the first time. Randy Meisner, Don Henley and Glenn Frey met as her backup band, and the relationship stuck. They went on to form The Eagles.
American folk-music legends like The Limeliters and Glenn Yarbrough would draw standing-room-only crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. How did these musicians make their way to sleepy Los Altos?
“A lot of them played in San Francisco, and Larry Hancock was very well connected in the entertainment business,” said Ed Temple, who worked the door at the Cellar some nights after he got off the swing shift at the Los Altos Police Department. “Acoustically, it was a great room to play. The capacity was only a couple of hundred people max, it had wood beams, a fireplace – there were old-fashioned, rural tables, dark carpet, really comfortable chairs.”
Temple added that “word got out that it was a fun place to play – they didn’t make a tremendous amount of money, but they had a good time, not too far from San Francisco.”
Residents of all types found their way to the Cellar – Temple remembers it as a singles’ place, but also one that couples of all ages would haunt.
“You walked into the place and you felt like you were home,” he said. “It had candles on the tables, you could hear good music, have a good time, get a cocktail at a fair price.”
Checking IDs and serving as house security, Temple became friends with the staff. One Thursday night, he started chatting with an old high school classmate who turned up with a friend in tow. The environment proved conducive for a long chat with the new acquaintance.
“It was kind of a slow night, and when the bar closed, we started spending some time together,” Temple said.
They ended up dating and today – they’re married.
By the mid-’80s, the area around the Cellar began seeing new development and Temple figures Hancock was getting older.
“They were still doing a good business, but that property became very valuable and I think he was ready to move on,” Temple said. “It was sold, and they closed the Cellar downstairs. That was a loss.”